Coasts, Castles and collywobbles – a Caledonian cycling tour
How not to lose weight and see the Borders by bike – a six-day East Coast ride to Scotland, on an empty stomach, in February
Cycling from Harrogate to the Central Belt – through the Yorkshire Dales to the East Coast and Northumberland, and from there to Edinburgh and Glasgow, in one week – ambitious? Yes, by anyone's standards this was a decent length of route for six days' touring. Rewarding? Well, much of the route I'd at least glimpsed from the train or touched on before, but most would be through country I'd not visited but both map and reputation suggested that I'd be having a good time while challenging myself in the process. Achievable? After a Lands' End-John O'Groats tour two years previously where I'd done 1020 miles in just over two weeks, 350 miles in six days should be a challenge but well within my grasp. That is, weather, health and bike permitting. Well, two out of three ain't bad.
Winter riding – Low sun, cold days, big hills
I've long enjoyed cycling in Scotland, and have spent many happy weeks in the last two decades exploring the west and north coastlines, the islands, and some of the less-trafficked inland routes and passes. As a rule, these have typically involved taking the train to Glasgow or Edinburgh, travelling on to Fort William, Mallaig, Inverness, Kyle of Lochalsh, Thurso or somewhere similar, and setting off from there. Scottish rail services are generally pretty decent at taking bikes as long as you do the sensible things such as not using suburban lines before rush hour, avoiding travelling at the same time as seven other cycletourists, being prompt at the station so you can embark and disembark without causing fuss or delay, and generally doing your best to keep yourself, your luggage and your bike out of people's way. Long may this continue, as there are still many areas I've not visited (Mull, Cowal, the Cairngorms, Braemar and the Angus Glens, the far north around Loch Shin and Altnaharra, Rannoch Moor..) as well as revisiting places where I've maybe not spent enough time or have only visited at a different time of year. A tweaked route, or the change in the season, is all the excuse you need to make a return visit as worthwhile as a first trip.
But one trip I'd never done, and had never seemed the most pressing one to attempt next, was to cycle to Scotland from home – to do the bit I'd normally do by train, in fact, before setting off for the 'real' scenery. As I may have hinted at before, this is a mistake – by all means explore ye the furthest corners and most scenic reaches of this and other isles, but neglect ye not those lands closer to home that just a little willpower and financial outlay can put within your ken, but would too often be forgotten or put in the 'some day' pile. So it was I devised a route that would connect a few places I wanted to visit, a couple of climbs I wanted to try out, and take me by quieter routes to some of the areas I'd sped past in previous years, but had not really allowed myself to absorb by immersing myself in them aboard only two wheels.
The smell of fresh timber.. we're off to Scotland!
The lumber yard at Sawley, North Yorks
I've discussed before now what decides what route to take during a trip – available time, the length of daylight hours, the 'directness/scenic-ness' ratio, the availability of accommodation and feeding stops, and the balance of avoiding civilisation and being able to buy food and postcards. I also try to make my trips challenging and rewarding in terms of the scenery they cross, the climbing I get to do and the landmarks I get to visit – and on top of this my route would also attempt to connect a few places I'd cycled but hadn't managed to connect to my Universal Cycling Network (the interconnected web of routes I've claimed in cycling round the UK) – namely Edinburgh and Newcastle/Durham, all of which I had explored after reaching them with bike, by train, but never by bike. So it was, then, that my route would take me from home, up through some of the Dales by routes I didn't know so well, to Reeth, Richmond and Stanhope, becoming coastal around Newcastle, at which point I would shadow the A1 through Alnwick, Lindisfarne and Berwick, before heading inland through the Borders and a bit of hill country in the Lammermuir Hills west of Duns, reaching Edinburgh on the first day of March and with my longest day to Glasgow, via the Forth Bridges, Falkirk and a little Lennoxtown hillclimb as a finale – the Sunday would see me covering a similar route by train in a little over five hours, compared to the six days and 32 cycling hours it would take me to ride the same route!
To Scotland via Google 2013
Six days, 350 miles, many dales, several castles and lots of bridges.. and one dodgy tum
So off we went. Not the most encouraging weather for a tour – dry, but cold and overcast – and though I'd had a delightful preview of my first day's ride courtesy of Wheel Easy just a week previously, the fresh, bright cold sunshine had been replaced by drab, dull cold unencouragingness. Oh well – if I'm not so inspired by a ride or by the scenery, the weather, the traffic, I don't give up – I just don't stop as much. Fortunately there were a few photo opportunities en route, the first being a slight diversion to a 200-year old folly near Ilton, southwest of Masham – the Druid's Temple in Swinton Park – a slightly more elaborate take on a Stonehenge-style stone circle, created by William Danby partly to give unemployed locals the means to earn a living.
The Druid's Temple, a Stonehenge-style folly near Masham
It loses a certain something by knowing it was built rather more recently than BC, but it's not a bad copy in my book. Certainly in this kind of weather it's easy to imagine it being used for its intended purposes.. arcane and heathen, no doubt.
The grotto in the Druid's Temple
It had been somewhere I'd meant to explore before now, and I'd been close on a couple of Wheel Easy rides before now, but never actually seen it. Well, a little underwhelmed though I was, I can vouch for it being a pretty authentic interpretation of a prehistoric stone circle, and atmospheric enough to warrant a visit if you're in the area. With more miles to cover before my first night's accommodation locked up for the night though, I carried on.
Crossing the Ure on the way to Leyburn, and our first 'castle' of the trip
Up and down over a couple of hills, and I was in Wensleydale – almost the only dale not named after the river at its bottom. The village of Wensley lies a mile out of Leyburn, and makes a far more pleasingly-named dale than Uredale would. I planned to stop at Leyburn at 4pm and phone ahead to let my hosts know I wouldn't reach Reeth before 5pm, so as agreed I'd let myself in and leave my bike locked up in the corridor of the Dales Bike Centre where I'd be staying – but the unexpected seven-mile distance indicated on the roadsign made me think " I might just make this!" It was the spur I needed to drive me up the climb past the MOD ranges at Bellerby, and down the other side to reach the Dales Bike Centre at 16.53.
The Bellerby Ranges above Leyburn, before my first night at the Dales Bike Centre, Reeth
After checking in though, I had work to do – before shower, dinner and bed I'd be freeing my bike from the weight of my luggage and heading back the way I'd come, to complete a hill climb from the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs book – a three-mile slog up over cattlegrids, round hairpin bends and through snow and ice beneath my wheels by the time I got towards the top, in darkness at 6.30. A gentle descent down again, picking up ice to avoid in my headlights, then a mile's walk to Reeth to stock up on provisions before the shop shut. I made it with half an hour to spare, but decided to head for the pub rather than make myself a meal out of what I could salvage from the shop. A good move – the Black Bull Inn, Reeth was both warm (once close to the hearth), friendly and well-equipped to feed and water me. A couple of Old Peculiers and a Rabbit Yorkshire pud later, I was chatting with locals and barman, talking about previous trips and this one, setting the world to rights, and introducing them to my website, www.singaroundiceland.com. A stroll home, a shower and a mountain bike magazine saw me early to bed. All in all, not a bad start to a trip.